After challenging year, staff and clients of Noank Community Support Services celebrate together at picnic
Groton — People laughed and talked with one another at picnic tables under a pavilion adorned with balloons at Washington Park on the sunny and breezy Wednesday afternoon.
Stations were set up for people to decorate water bottles and flower pots, and to play games, from cornhole to soccer, on the grass.
"It's a celebration," Noank Community Support Services Executive Director Regina Moller said at the agency's annual field day, which was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Agency clients and staff gathered together at the picnic for the first time in a long time to celebrate the return of some normalcy and to socialize.
"It was a difficult year," Moller said. "We've had staff with (COVID-19). We've had clients with COVID. We weren’t able to intermingle programs. We canceled all of our usual staff celebrations."
She said the picnic is refreshing for both staff members and clients: "It's like we're connecting again," she said.
Moller said Noank Community Support Services offers a continuum of behavioral health services for people, from babies to the elderly. The organization has a homeless shelter for young adults ages 18 to 24, a shelter for refugee children up to age 18, and therapeutic group homes for adolescent girls, and provides community-based services for people with chronic mental illness, among other services.
People from the programs across the agency got to spend time with one another and also interact with the agency's staff at Wednesday's picnic.
"It's such a breath of fresh air literally and figuratively to be able to come back together and to celebrate that this agency has held us all together during this difficult time, and that we come together and celebrate a new chapter," said Kyle Murray, who enjoyed lunch at a picnic table next to recovery assistant Jill Mehlman.
Murray said he feels so supported by Mehlman and the agency. A number of years ago, he said he was hospitalized many times for mental health issues, but because of Noank Community Support Services, he has not had any major hospitalizations in over five years. He said he is thriving in the community, not only with his mental health, but being active at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation and is going to a forum Thursday at Mitchell College to look at going to school there.
"It's been life-changing for me," Murray said. "I don’t feel like I'm a patient or a client. I feel like that Jill, my recovery assistant, and I are partners in my recovery."
Murray has social anxiety, so having support when he goes to a grocery store or an appointment makes a huge difference. He said Kara Larkin, who coordinates the recovery assistants, is such a kind person and ensured clients still had coverage during the pandemic.
Mia Williams and Grace Bellisle, both 19, and Corey Reynolds, 21, were talking and enjoying lunch at the picnic, while case managers Brittney Senerth and Lisa Sweeney also were chatting nearby.
Noank Community Support Services is a service provider for the Community Housing Assistance program, which Williams and Bellisle, who were in foster care, participate in and which provides support so young adults can "secure housing and transition to living independently," according to Noank Community Support Services.
Williams said she has learned to be independent when she needs to be and to ask for help when she needs it. She is studying criminology in college and plans to either be a Department of Children and Families social worker or a probation officer for juveniles to help kids.
Bellisle said statistically many children in foster care end up on the streets, so she said without these programs, she probably would have ended up homeless. She is studying library tech in college, and will either pursue that field or switch to become an ultrasound technician.
Reynolds participates in a similar program, which provides support such as housing and help to find a stable job. He said he is deciding between three potential paths: certified nursing assistant, EMS/EMT or landscaping. The program and his case manager, Lisa, also have provided emotional support to Reynolds, whose father recently passed away, and helped keep him focused on his goals for his future, he said. He encouraged people to learn more about the programs because they're really helpful and especially for people in foster care, they are a "godsend."
Noank Community Support Services plans to expand its support services and has secured additional space, which is handicapped-accessible and will allow the organization to grow, Moller said. More information about the agency is available at its website, noankcss.org.